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Adventures of a stay-at-home, skeptical, homeschooling dad (etc.)


Meat puppets on chemical strings

Suppose I, without your knowledge, began giving you a drug. This drug, say, reduced your serotonin levels by a certain small amount[1]. Over a few days, things might begin to change for you. You might experience reduced energy. You might experience reduced motivation. You might have appetite changes and your previously-stable weight might start to change. You might not be able to bounce back quite so quickly from minor annoyances and depressed moods. Maybe you're not quite as enthused about your favorite shows, or your favorite sport, or anything, really.

"I feel different. What's going on?" you might think.

But, you've always been a trouper, so maybe you try to "buck up" and handle it. Maybe you try changing your diet or increasing your exercise, and maybe it helps, a little anyway, but each day is now just that much more of a struggle for you because of this secretly-given drug.

Is the drug the "cause" of your mood changes? Are you responsible for your moods and feelings? Do you just need to "buck up" a little more? The very way you experience life has changed because of what the drug has done. Are "you" even still "you"?

Under those circumstance, I can't imagine anyone thinking you are "responsible" for your mood, or that it was "all in your head", or that the changes due to the drug weren't to blame, or that the result wasn't negative. Can you? If you found out about the drug, you'd be extremely angry at me, and try to make sure I didn't give it to you again, right? You wouldn't think those changes would be "normal" or "good". If you found out the cause, you'd immediately try to fix it.

Now, just suppose, that instead of the drug, your body just normally produced a little less serotonin than the next guy (or the mechanism that uses serotonin works a little less efficiently, or whatever). Maybe it's genetically less, maybe it's caused by disease, or maybe something from your childhood environment caused it. It doesn't matter why it's different, just that it is.

Is that a different situation that the secretly-given drug? It's a different cause, yes, but is the result any different? The behavior and moods would be similar… so, is the person "responsible" for them?

The person with slightly less serotonin (or whatever mechanism) probably can try to "buck up" and handle it: try certain lifestyle changes, less alcohol, more exercise, better food, better sleep habits, etc., but, as above, each day is just that much more of a struggle for the person compared to if the level was higher [2].

Think about the huge variety of humans throughout the world. Height? Some are 3 feet tall, some are 8. True, the majority fall within a "narrow" range, but someone on the bottom of that range is still quite a bit shorter than someone at the top. Facial features? Some humans look like Emma Watson, some look like Damon Wayons, and some look like Gary Busey. Lots of variety, right? Different genes, different nutrition, and different levels of hormones at different times. It all adds up to quite a range of human beings.

And everyone is basically OK with that knowledge, and the consequences. Some people are just taller, and some people are just shorter. A short person must work a lot harder to reach things on the top shelf, maybe even using a step stool or a ladder. If you watch the shorter person dragging around the ladder, few would fault her for using it or would complain that it takes longer to get a job done. If she says "Hey, dragging this ladder around is a lot of work," who would disagree? We'd even feel happy for her that she was trying, even though the results are still much worse than the tall guy.

But try that with anything relating to behavior, emotions, or ability, and suddenly plenty of people seem to imagine the entire human race is on equal footing, and the only determining factors are determination and willpower. Or maybe they think the differences might be innate, but are natural and good, and we certainly shouldn't go mucking about trying to "fix" the "problem".

Whether we can or should change it is a different topic, and the best way to change it still another, but can't we all at least admit that the differences can cause negative outcomes relative to those in the middle?

Many people cannot imagine this, apparently.

ADHD? Just spank them and make them pay attention! … Insomnia? Just change how you sleep! … Addiction? Just quit! … Depression? Quit feeling sorry for yourself, just buck up and handle it! … Chronic anxiety? Try relaxing!

Your glands and central nervous system make and react to hundreds of chemicals at particular levels. Serotonin, endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin, adrenaline, testosterone, estrogen, and thyroid hormones, just to name a few. Take any human and tweak these values (or how they are processed) up or down, even a little, and that person's moods, behaviors, and even abilities can change.

Maybe you pride yourself on your positive outlook, and denigrate (directly or indirectly) those quote depressed end-quote people who just "can't stop focusing on the negative". But I tweak your serotinin, and maybe it's not so easy to recover anymore? Maybe you can adjust a little, but it's an extra couple of steps you didn't have to do before, and those steps are harder because of the changes, to boot.

Maybe you're not prone to panic or anger. But, if I tweak your adrenaline or testosterone, maybe you're not so calm under pressure anymore? Maybe you could do it, after a fashion, but now you have to work a lot harder to restore your previous level.

I fiddle with your thyroid, and your life slows down. I spike your oxytocin, and break-ups are twice as emotional and depressing as they were before. I blunt your endorphins, and your celebrations are less, uh, celebratory.

If done artificially, these changes would be universally seen as a bad thing, but what if those levels are "normal" for another person? Is it really that inconceivable that innate "brain chemistry" differences could result in innate differences in mood and behavior? And that those differences could be a detriment as compared to those in the middle?

How much of these chemicals human beings produce and how their bodies react to them must fall onto a range. Not having a range would be extremely strange, and expecting that there'd be no fluctuations over time would be downright miraculous. So why can't we expect humans to vary in their responses to those chemicals without judging their willpower or character?

I'm not saying we have no free will, cannot make choices, or are not responsible for our actions. No, we are not just meat puppets on chemical strings, at least not "just".

But, it should be understood that not everyone has the same chemicals and the same wiring, and those differences cause real problems which take real effort to work around. Not everyone can merely "buck up and deal with it", at least not without putting a lot more effort into it than you have to.

To you, a situation might merely be a matter of positive outlook or willpower, to someone else, it might be a mountain.